Now & Then: The History of the Bikini

“It was an itsy bitsy, teenie weenie, yellow polka dot bikini”: Once so shocking, the song’s 1960s protagonist was “afraid to come out of the water.”

In 1946 in Paris, a fashion designer named Louis Reald unveiled his two-piece bathing suit to the public. He named it the “bikini” because he believed the sight of women wearing such skimpy attire would cause men the same sort of devastation that the Bikini Atoll had suffered four days earlier when an atomic bomb was detonated on it. These days it’s women who wake up with a bang each summer at the sound of the word, “Bikini.” Modern day hyphenates like bikini-body, bikini-bootcamp and most definitely, bikini-wax certainly add to the impact.

Micheline Bernardini photographed wearing the first bikini. Designed by Louis Reald to be “smaller than the world’s smallest bathing suit,” it was designed to fit in the matchbox Bernardini is holding.

Conceived to be small enough to fit into a matchbox, the new navel revealing design was considered so scandalous that none of the Parisian models would dare to wear his design. Reard could only find nude dancer Micheline Bernardini to model his design for the press.

In the early 1940s pin-ups like Rita Hayworth wore two-pieces but covered their navels.

Midriff baring swimsuits had preceded the bikini with far less sensation. By the early 1940s film stars like Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner and Ava Gardner were all photographed wearing two-piece swimsuits consisting of a structured halter-top and bottom, but it was the revelation of the female bellybutton that was truly controversial.

Favored by Queen Victoria, bathing huts in 1900 protected female bathers’ modesty.

When you consider that only 50 years earlier, women wanting to take a dip at the beach were reliant on a contraption called a bathing machine, it may put the hoopla of 1946 in some perspective. In existence as early as 1750, bathing huts – small wooden huts on wheels inside which women changed inside and were then wheeled into the water to descend a small ladder in the back – prevented women from the immodesty of running across the open sand in her bathing suit.

Brigitte Bardot photographed on the French Riviera helped to encourage the trend for bikinis in the 1950s. 

The bikini grew in popularity in France throughout the 1950s, helped along by Brigitte Bardot’s steamy roles in 1952 with The Girl in the Bikini and in 1956 with And God Created Woman. The rest of the world remained immune to its charms, bikinis were banned in Belgium, Italy, Spain and Australia and from worldwide beauty pageants after the first Miss World Contest in London in 1951, and it was even declared sinful by the Vatican.

It remained off limits in the States until wholesome girl-next-door Annette Funicello in 1960s beach party movies like Bikini Beach and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini helped make the bikini more popular to the masses. The first Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition in 1964 sealed the deal with Babette March in a white bikini.

Actress Ursula Andress, playing Honey Rider in the James Bond film Dr. No, memorably strode out of tropical Caribbean waters wearing a homemade bikini shocking American theater goers in 1962.

As the female body ideal become more athletic in the 1970s and 80s, women were photographed proudly displaying taut midriffs, rather than sucking them in as they did in the 1950s. Accounting for more than 20 percent of swimsuit sales in the United States, the bikini grew smaller than ever, as G-strings made their way from Brazil and suits were cut at the thigh. While 2012 swimsuit trends marked the return of the vintage-style one-piece, the bikini once thought shocking, is now the grandmother of all fashion swimwear.

 The 1980s saw the introduction of the string bikini as seen on Phoebe Cates in Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Want to catch up on some more fashion history?

Now & Then: The History of the White Wedding Dress

Now & Then: The History of Shapewear

Now & Then: The History of the Ballet Flat

Now & Then: The History of the Breton Shirt

Now & Then: The History of the Pencil Skirt

Now & Then: The History of Skinny Jeans

Read more Now & Then articles here.


Rowena Ritchie

Rowena is EcoSalon’s West Coast Fashion Editor and currently resides in San Francisco, CA.